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Hey media startups - J school students need your help (and you need theirs)

I spent the better part of last weekend at the University of Oregon’s journalism school. On Saturday I was a panelist at the Building a Better Journalist conference, and on Sunday I took part in the Redefining J School barcamp. I don’t have a journalism degree. In fact, I don’t have a college degree at all. But this weekend I learned this: Professional journalists and their news organizations need to start thinking about how we can help students get the training they need.

It was a weekend of contrasts. I came away amazed by some sessions and depressed by others. The conversation during the barcamp was so fast and sharp at times it was almost impossible to take notes; the new media sessions at the conference had a great range in topics as well.  Of course, there were also a few tedious veterans yabbering about “change.” I get cynical and bored with people who wave the word “digital” around like it’s some kind of healing wand without ever examining what has actually changed in our industry. Journalism students need answers, not aphorisms.

If there was one thing I took away from those two days it was this:

There are j school students out there who want more than what their universities are providing. And we may be loosing some damn good journalists because of it.

That’s not a crack at the U of O. In fact, they’re probably the most proactive university I know of. They recently changed their curriculum so that students get more hands-on training earlier in their studies. Several professors and instructors — including Ed MadisonMichael Werner and Suzi Steffen — were an integral part of the barcamp. Additionally, the university’s journalism department has been a strong supporter of community events like the Digital Journalism Camp and We Make the Media conferences. (Disclaimer: I am involved with organizing both events.)

But the reality is that as easy-to-use blogging, video, audio, programing and other digital tools increases, the number of students entering college with some type of skill is increasing as well. That doesn’t mean that a university can teach all incoming students at a higher level. It means the university has to serve a broader spectrum of students. With, of course, limited resources. Some students, like entrepreneur Daniel Bachhuber for instance, aren’t being challenged enough and they’re dropping out. That’s a tragedy not just for the school, but for the j school students who could be learning from their advanced-level peers.

One solution is to improve existing internship programs. Challenging, real-world work experience isn’t guaranteed to keep students in school, but it’s a significant start. Students at the barcamp had plenty of suggestions: Give us opportunities to add things to our portfolios, training that reflects what’s actually happening in journalism, and work that respects our time. But new journalism startups also need to start creating internship programs. J school interns are not just a source of cheap labor — they’re the talent pool you’re going to be drawing from as you grow.

Out-of-work journalists are fleeing the industry for stable work elsewhere. We can’t afford to loose talented students to other fields as well. Over the next decade we’re going to need them as much as they need us.